The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Essays And Short Takes

The Ghost of Kinsey Past

From the Editors

Times Square peep show; flickr.

By one estimate, 750 sex surveys were conducted in the twentieth century. The pace shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first. 

The press was abuzz in October with the statistics from the latest aggressively publicized study, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSS HB). Although the findings were published in an academic journal, they made the rounds in the media as bullet points of juicy tidbits. By now, of course, we have grown accustomed to such surveys. Given the needs of research and concerns about promoting “sexual health” in an age of epidemics of sexually-transmitted diseases, we expect the collection of data on the private lives of citizens, even youth as young as 14. Such data, it seems safe to say, no longer surprises, much less shocks. The survey even had corporate funding—from the folks that make Trojan condoms. 

What is striking about the publicizing of the survey, however, is that more than half a century after Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior studies (published in 1948 and 1953), his agenda remains alive as key justifications for counting up sexual acts. One justification, central to Kinsey’s project, was to address the interest of the general public. According to the NSS HB authors, their study can help people who “for reasons of curiosity and personal comparison,” want to know “who does what sexually and how often.” The authors regard this curiosity as “innate,” so feeding it is apparently a public service. 

The second justification also echoes Kinsey. For Kinsey, documenting all the sexual acts was aimed to show people that nothing they did sexually was objectionable and with this “statistical morality,” as critics called it, to defeat those who argued otherwise. Those goals seem not to have changed much. Thus, one of the study’s authors, a pediatrics professor, explained to the press: “Unless, like al-Qaida, you feel there’s something abnormal about the American people, what these data say is, ‘this is normal—everything in there is normal.’”